The Workaholic Family: A Review of Research
Recent findings corroborate existing Information that work addiction, like alcoholism, takes its toll on the family members living with the work addict. Although it is already known that cardiovascular risk is high for children of Type A parents, it seems that mental health risks may also exist for children of workaholics and spouses of workaholics. The structural and dynamic characteristics of the workaholic family indicate that all family members are negatively affected by workaholism and may develop mental health problems (Robinson, 1998a. 1998b, 1998c). The structure of the workaholic family system is such that spouses and children become extensions of the workaholic's ego, inevitably leading to family conflict (Robinson. 1996a, 1996b).
Over time, family members build a pattern of responses to their loved one's work addiction (Robinson, 1998c). Spouses of workaholics, not unlike alcoholic spouses, become consumed with trying to get their partners to curb their compulsive behaviors and spend more time in the relationship. Spouses and children of workaholics report feeling lonely, unloved, isolated, and emotionally and physically abandoned (Robinson, 1998b. 1998c). They may habitually complain or become cynical about the workaholic's abusive work habits. A common refrain is that even when workaholics are physically present, they are emotionally unavailable and disconnected from the family.
Spouses of workaholics may have singlehandedly raised the children and complain of having the major portion of parenting responsibilities dumped on them. Filled with resentment of this one-sided arrangement, they tend to react with anger and complaining. Some workaholics then use the verbal complaints as justification for their physical and emotional aloofness. Thus, circularity often occurs when workaholics assert, "I wouldn't work so much if you wouldn't nag me all the time" to which spouses retort, "I wouldn't bug you so much if you didn't work all the time."
In Japanese families, workaholic men are often referred to as "seven-eleven husbands." — a term for marginal fathers who work from dawn to dusk, have extricated themselves from family life, and live on the fringes of their families (Ishiyama & Kitayama, 1994). In both Japan (Ishiyama & Kitayama. 1994) and the United States (Robinson, 1998a). once family alliances become solidified in the workaholic father's absence, spouses resent having their turfs violated when workaholics do try to become more actively involved in their families.
Older children, too, often rebuff the workaholic's attempts to reconnect with the family because they feel the reentry is too little, too late, or both. Japanese wives use the derogatory term nure-ochiba (a wet fallen leaf stuck to the bottom of the shoes) to refer to retired workaholic husbands who do not know what to do with themselves when they are not working and who hang around the house expecting their wives to be in charge of their spare time (Ishiyama & Kitayama, 1994).
A national study conducted in the United States provides evidence suggesting that workaholism can lead to brittle family relationships, contribute to marital conflict, and create dysfunction in the family (Robinson & Post, 1995, 1997). The investigators in the study administered a battery of instruments to 107 participants from Workaholics Anonymous across the United States and Canada.
Workaholism was significantly correlated with current family functioning. The higher the work addiction scores, the higher the degree of perceived dysfunction In one's current family. Greater work addiction was related to less effective problem solving, less communication, less clearly established family roles, fewer affective responses, less affective involvement, and lower general functioning in families established in adulthood. On the basis of the work addiction scores, three groups were established from the sample: low-, medium-, and high-risk for work addiction.
Individuals in the high-risk group were more likely to rate their families as having problems in communication or in the exchange of information among family members than were those in the low- or medium-risk categories. They were more likely to rate their families as having unclearly defined family roles and believed their families were less likely to have established behavior patterns for handling repetitive family functions than were those in the other groups. They also said their families were less likely to appropriately express feelings in response to various events that occurred in the family.
High-risk adults said their families were less likely to be Interested in and value each other's activities and concerns. High-risk individuals also were perceived to be more likely to have problems in the general functioning and overall health and pathology of their families than were individuals at low- or medium-risk for work addiction. Although spouses and children were not directly targeted in this study, one could predict from its findings and from other empirical research that both spouses and offspring of workaholics may be at risk for certain psychological outcomes, not unlike those of family members of alcoholics.
Spouses of Workaholics
No empirical studies exist in which the spouses of workaholics directly assess their perspectives of living with a work addict (Robinson, 1998b). The information that is available comes from magazine surveys (Herbst, 1996; Weeks, 1995). a poll assessing the perspectives of physicians (Pietropinto, 1986), and case study reports (Robinson. 1998a).
A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers cited preoccupation with work as one of the top four causes of divorce (Robinson, 1998a). Exec Magazine surveyed the work habits of 3,000 men of which one third reported having been accused of having an affair because of the long hours they had put into their jobs (Weeks, 1995). Eighty-six percent of the survey said their personal relationships were marred by work-related stress. Similar findings were reported in a survey by McCall's Magazine in which 80% of the readers said their husbands worked too much (Herbst, 1996).
A group of 400 physicians were polled regarding their observations of workaholics as spouses (Pietropinto, 1986). Results indicated that workaholics devote an inordinate amount of time to work, as opposed to marriage, and have higher than normal expectations for marital satisfaction. They are more demanding of achievement in their children than are nonworkaholics and their typical approach to leisure time is to fill it with work activities. The workaholic's usual style in marital disagreements is to avoid confrontation or use passive-aggressive maneuvers such as silence and sulking. Physicians, as a group, generally agreed that these combined factors wreak havoc on the family unit.
A 10-point profile, developed from hundreds of case studies from spouses of workaholics, included the following themes (Robinson. 1998a, 1998b):
- Feel ignored, neglected, closed out, unloved, and unappreciated because of the workaholic's physical and emotional remoteness.
- Believe they are carrying the emotional burdens of the marriage and parenting, which brings a feeling of loneliness and aloneness in the marriage.
- View themselves as second choice and work as the workaholics first choice, because family time is dictated by work schedules and demands, which come first.
- Perceive themselves as extensions of the workaholic who must be the center of attention.
- View themselves as controlled, manipulated, and sometimes rushed by their partners who "call the shots."
- Use attention-seeking measures to get their partners to see them or give in to conversations and activities around work in order to connect with them.
- View the relationship as serious and intense with a minimum of carefree time or fun.
- Harbor guilt for wanting more in the relationship while their partners are applauded by colleagues and society for their accomplishments.
- Have low self-esteem and feel defective and believe that they cannot measure up to their partners, who are often put on a pedestal.
- Question their own gratitude and sanity when faced with the accolades bestowed on their workaholic spouse.
Children of Workaholics
Case studies of children of workaholics indicate that offspring of workaholics become resentful of their parents' emotional absence (Oates. 1971; Robinson, 1992. 1998a). Psychologically unavailable to their offspring, workaholics generally do not take an active role in their children's development. When workaholics do. it is often to make sure that their children are mastering their own perfectionist standards. Expectations are often out of reach for children of workaholics who internalize their failure as self-inadequacy. The anecdotal literature suggests that many children of workaholics carry the same legacy of their workaholic parents: They become other-directed and approval seeking to meet adult expectations (Robinson. 1998a).
Unlike alcoholic families in which children can point to the bottle as a source of their discontent-, in workaholic families there is no visible cause for the confusion, frustration, and self-inadequacy because the Puritan work ethic prevents work addiction from being viewed as a viable compulsive disorder. It is. in fact, an addiction that gets rewarded and encouraged in our society (Porter, 1996).
Oates (1971) identified four symptoms from his conversations with several children of workaholics. Preoccupation was the most significant symptom cited by children of workaholics whose parents always had something else on their minds. The second symptom was haste — their parents were always rushing around. Irritability was pronounced because parents were so deeply involved in their work that it made them cross and cranky. Related to the fact that the children believed that their workaholic parents took work too seriously and lacked humor was the fourth symptom identified by children, which was parental depression about work.
It has been argued that in workaholic-headed families, the generation lines that typically insulate children from the parental adult world get violated or blurred, and these children become what family therapists call parentified (Robinson. 1998a. 1999b). Parentified children by definition are parents to their own parents and sacrifice their own need for attention, comfort, and guidance in order to accommodate and care for the emotional needs and pursuits of parents or another family member (Chase, 1999; Jurkovic, 1997). Workaholics who were parentified as children often pass their own parentification on to their offspring who are chosen to be emotional surrogates for the missing workaholic parent.
A typical example is the child who is elevated into an adult position in the family system to accommodate a parent's emotional need for intimacy by becoming the adult of the house during the workaholic parent's physical or emotional absence. Another scenario exists when the nonworkaholic spouse is consumed in the single parent role during the workaholic's absence, and children (usually the oldest) become parentified when required to become overly responsible at a young age before they are fully emotionally constructed themselves. Examples include assuming household chores or caretaking responsibilities for younger siblings to bring homeostasis to the family system. The gap of having to forfeit childhood — leaving youngsters devoid of feelings of approval, reassurance, love, the comfort and protection from adult pressures — shows up years later as an oft-described "empty hole inside" (Robinson, 1998a, 1999b).
The first empirical study on children of workaholics indicated that family-of-origin dysfunction may get passed on to offspring. In the study, 211 young adults were asked to rate their parents on their workaholism (Robinson & Kelley, 1998). On the basis of their ratings, parents were grouped as either workaholic (scores of one standard deviation above the mean) or nonworkaholic. Then the young adults (mean age 24) were given a battery of tests that measured depression, anxiety, self-concept, and locus of control.
Results indicated that adult children of workaholic fathers suffered greater depression, anxiety, and external locus of control than did the comparison group of adults of nonworkaholic fathers. The findings corroborate similar findings among children of alcoholic populations compared with adult children of nonalcoholics (Robinson & Rhoden, 1998). There were no differences found regarding selfconcepts of children and workaholics, and children of workaholic mothers scored no differently than did children of nonworkaholic mothers.
A second empirical study compared young adults who grew up in workaholic families with those who grew up in alcoholic families (as measured by the Children of Alcoholic Screening Test; Carroll & Robinson, 1999). In that study, 207 young adults (mean age 25) were classified into one of four categories: (a) adult children of workaholics, (b) adult children of alcoholics, (c) one parent either workaholic or alcoholic, and (d) neither parent a workaholic or an alcoholic. The results indicated that adult children of workaholics had higher scores on depression and parentification than did any of the other groups. In a third study, 121 professional nurses rated their parents' workaholism (Navarrete, 1998). Findings indicated that adult children of workaholics scored significantly higher than did adult children of nonworkaholics on anxiety, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and extrinsic motivation.
Although research in this area is still embryonic, results of these studies suggest that children are affected by parental work addiction in ways that are mentally unhealthy and can cause problems well into young adulthood. Other clinical accounts also suggest that children of workaholics often become workaholics themselves -using performance as a measure of their self-worth (Robinson. 1998a). They are described as self-critical, perfectionistic, overly self-demanding, and chameleons in adult relationships — eager to forfeit the self for the approval of others.
- Robinson, Bryan; Workaholism: bridging the gap between workplace, sociocultural, and family research; Journal of Employment Counseling; Mar 2000; Vol. 37; Issue 1.
Reflection Exercise #2
The preceding section contained information
about spouses and children of workaholics. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
It has been argued that in workaholic-headed families, the generation lines that typically insulate children from the parental adult world get violated or blurred, and these children become what family therapists call parentified. What are parentified children? Record the letter of the correct answer